Governments; and 'right' to bear arms

Date: Thu, 12 Oct 1995 13:02:18 +0100
From: "peter.harvey" [email protected]
Subject: Governments; and 'right' to bear arms

John Buescher writes, in a good piece, that human rights are "a limit on the excercize [by a state] of what is really contingent power as if it were absolute". Nice way of putting it.

And yet... might not some of the private militias in the US use similar language against the 'federal government'??

If governments have no 'absolute right' to treat their citizens as they wish, individuals and groups have no 'absolute right' to do what they want, either.

Looking at the US from Britain, the 'right to bear arms' is truly wierd.

Date: Fri, 13 Oct 1995 16:19:03 -0400
From: "John Buescher" [email protected]
Subject: Re: Governments; and 'right' to bear arms, and other things

Peter Harvey makes an interesting point that individual rights are indeed limited and sometimes in conflict with legitimate rights of the State, and he says that when looking at the U.S. from Britain, the so-called right to bear arms is truly weird.

I cannot say that it looks any less weird from the U.S. I can only say, as a simplistic answer to his good point about the limits on individual rights, that, as a fundamental right, I would, metaphorically, give the individual a shield, not a sword, too. If it is not too confusing to introduce a metaphor that reverses the traditional Buddhist symbol of the sword, this sword is in the realm of conventions, the skillful-means-side of things. The shield is the ultimate and negative limits on these.

The sword might be, in very extraordinary circumstances, a valid instrument to a compassionate end--protection --but the problem, of course, is that the sword has two edges, and by that I mean that it not only protects, but also harms, which, I suppose, is another reason why it would have to fall under the category of skillful means, signifying, among other things, that one would have to be skillful to use it effectively and toward a compassionate goal, otherwise it does more harm than good.

As a similar case, how about a doctor with a scalpel-- the skillful means to a positive, compassionate end? Restraining the use of the scalpel is the Hippocratic oath that does not so much enumerate the positive means the physician should use to help, but limits the power of the physician over the patient, under the principle of not doing harm.

This seems to accord intuitively with a Buddhist sense of non-harming, and it sets the strongest foundation for rights on something like a limitation on a claim that is already being made--again, rights are not asserted in a vacuum (as if they existed in and of themselves), but against some form of absolutism over-extending itself.

As I re-read my postings, I see that my argument might look like a kind of Buddhist Libertarianism. But in fact my real position is different than that: The Buddhist doctrines of compassion, lovingkindness, and the value accorded in the Buddhist tradition to social or community cohesion and happiness are clearly connected to the category of rights that are embodied in international covenants and declarations on the so-called economic, social, and cultural rights. I have merely wanted to propose as well what might have seemed a less obvious connection between the Buddhist doctrines of selflessness, impermanence, and emptiness and the civil and political rights that include such things as freedom from cruel and arbitrary punishment, freedom of expression and association, and so on, and to show some sense in which these are universal.

I am sorry if this has raised any hackles; I do not mean to offend, but I do not think I have called for a crusade, either. I believe that the notion of universal human rights does not in itself necessitate an absolutism, and need not encourage it; but I am just trying to puzzle this out here and feel my way through this: Is it really impossible to recognize universal human rights, as derived from a limit on arbitrary power, as rooted in non-self, rather than in a reification of self?

I am asking to give people a shield, not a sword. If people, however, then equipped with a shield, turn it into a club to beat others over the head with, well, that is not surprising, is it? They do the same with the Buddhist teachings on compassion and wisdom, too. Shall we just throw these away, then, so as to eliminate attachments?

To anyone who believes we should have already passed beyond good and evil, who might casually answer yes to that question, I ask if you dare to appear in such an exalted mindstate amidst the political prisoners in Tibet who smuggle out letters to the Dalai Lama and to the West, who have certainly undergone more profound suffering than most any of us will likely experience during this lifetime, and tell them as they are being tortured that they need to get over their attachments--including their attachment to human rights--and accept the fact of history? (If you think I am bashing China, please note that among the worst torturers in Tibetan prisons are some ethnic Tibetans, but of course their ethnic identification really matters very little: they might be any of us) I can tell you that I could not dare speak those words. Yet some of those prisoners, despite their sufferings, still say they wish for the welfare of all beings--including their torturers--while still asking for their human rights to be respected. Their dharma-practice seems to me to be almost unimaginably difficult, but it is to thoseprisoners that I propose we look for the most vivid teaching possible on non-discrimination.

Given the time constraint on this conference, I suppose this will be my last posting. Best wishes and thanks to you all,

John Buescher
Voice of America